Gov. Christie should seek a disgruntled NBA owner instead of lobbying David Stern for Nets replacement
WEDNESDAY, 26 JANUARY 2011 12:59
BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
There is an odd dynamic that plays out in sports. Elected officials genuflect before the commissioners of Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer along with NASCAR officials begging them for a franchise or in NASCAR's case an annual event. Conversely, a sports commissioner lobbies before elected officials for stadiums/arenas and on the federal level before Washington lawmakers to make sure various antitrust laws and in Major League Baseball's case, a full antitrust exemption, stay in place.
Big time college sports executives also show up in Washington to make sure big time college sports keep tax exemptions in place.
So it should not be surprising that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has begun a lobbying effort, not quite begging yet, in an attempt to get NBA Commissioner David Stern to think about replacing the soon-to-depart Newark-based New Jersey Nets with another team.
New Jersey's chances of landing a team on the surface seem to be non-existent however Christie has an ace in the hole that other prospective cities don't have. A major regional cable sports network that has limited winter programming, SNY, who could pay much more money in TV rights than say Louisville, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Seattle and Vancouver. In David Stern's three-legged stool world for a successful franchise, a large, local cable TV is an absolute must as is local government support (Christie is in favor of a Nets replacement) and corporate support. That last plank in Stern's platform is the major problem in New Jersey and has been a thorn in the side of past and present day Nets (and New Jersey Devils) ownerships.
Christie will have to wait though. The Brooklyn building has been on hold for years although there seems to be momentum to get the arena finally done. The NBA may not be operating in the fall of 2011 because the owners and players need a new collective bargaining agreement and Stern, as lead negotiator, figures to take a very hard line as he and the 30 NBA owners want changes in how players are compensated.
The NBA has some franchises that are on shaky financial footing. The league now owns the New Orleans Hornets, a franchise in desperate fiscal shape. The old Hornets ownership had attendance clauses built into the team lease with the state at the New Orleans Arena. There was a benchmark that needed to be reached by the end of January or the team ownership could pay $10 million and relocate. The league celebrated that the benchmark was hit but that doesn't mean the team will last in New Orleans beyond 2014. Indiana's owner Herb Simon is financially struggling and Charlotte has not been performing well financially since the NBA returned to the city in 2004.
The Maloof brothers are in a financial mess in Sacramento and claim they need a new arena. With California's financial woes and a proposal by Governor Jerry Brown to de-fund local redevelopment agencies on July 1, getting an arena built in Sacramento with public funding may be difficult. The Maloofs have failed in their quest for a new building on a number of occasions. (The Brown proposal could kill NFL stadium development in San Diego and a baseball park in San Jose for the Oakland A's.).
Newark has an NBA ready building for some owner and probably a lucrative cable TV deal. But Newark isn't the only NBA suitor. Louisville, Kentucky is once again seeking a team despite losing out on the Charlotte Hornets and the Vancouver Grizzlies about a decade ago. Vancouver may be back in the NBA wannabe category. The Vancouver saga in the NBA's mid-1990s expansion plans is worth noting in that the NBA decided to take Arthur Griffith's money ($100 million) in what seemed to be a cash grab.
Griffiths built a new arena with his own money and bought the franchise when the Canadian looney was worth 62 or 63 cents compared to the U.S. greenback. The two countries' dollar is around par right now. Griffiths sold the franchise to American businessman Michael Heisley in 2000. Heisley moved his franchise to Memphis in 2001. The Grizzlies franchise remains a cash-challenged NBA organization. A few years ago, Stern said he felt the NBA could not go back to Vancouver.
Stern can be a bullheaded bully. In 2005, the one-time New Jersey resident Stern trashed New Jersey politicians saying "you blew it" when another set of Nets owners could not get an arena built in Newark. Eventually Devils owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek worked out a deal with Newark officials and got an arena built with some of his money thrown into a publicly funded facility.
Christie seems to be willing to play ball with Stern. What Christie should be seeking out is an unhappy owner looking for greener pastures and go after that owner instead of Stern. Although the NBA blocked the planned sale and move of the Minnesota Timberwolves to New Orleans in 1994, a strong headed owner might tell Stern and his fellow owners to go stuff it and move anyway as Donald Sterling did in 1984 when he moved his San Diego Clippers to Los Angeles without league permission.
Moving an existing franchise to Newark may not be a large problem as the NBA, unlike Major League Baseball, is subjected to antitrust laws. It would take moving heaven and earth to put a third Major League Baseball team in the New York City area whether it is in Northern New Jersey or Brooklyn because Major League Baseball is exempt from certain portions of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Steinbrenner Yankees or the Wilpon Mets or both could say no to the idea and that would be it.
Major League Baseball is struggling to find a solution to the San Francisco Bay Area problem. The San Francisco Giants franchise has the territorial rights to San Jose and Santa Clara County, California even though those areas are much further away from the Giants home base in China Basin than Oakland, the city which houses the A's. Oakland A's owner Lew Wolff wants to move his team to San Jose but cannot because the Giants ownership group has the rights to the territory. Major League Baseball is looking for a solution. The solution will come when Wolff pays millions of dollars for "invading" Giants territory or if he wins an antitrust case against the Giants and Major League Baseball.
Wolff does not seem willing to sue Major League Baseball. Sterling told the NBA to try and stop me. The NBA didn't. But Christie may have to wait before he can really go after a disgruntled owner. There is the threat of the NBA lockout on July 1 and that takes precedent over everything else.
But Christie has thrown his hat in the ring and is running. The campaign has started to replace the New Jersey Nets in Newark as soon as possible.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org